Much of the world that calls itself “modern” does not want to know or even debate whether something is true or not.
Relativism, the claim that no truth can exist or be established, is the ruling assumption of the culture. Relativism itself, of course, is a claim to be “true.” That is, it is “true” that nothing is “true.” Any debate about truth would presuppose that it exists and is worthwhile pursuing. Any debate or dialogue concerning truth implies that objective standards exist whereby we can distinguish between true and false, right and wrong. A debate also presumes that it makes a difference which side is right and which wrong. Otherwise, why bother?
Debating in practice can and often does lead to skepticism if little effort is made to decide the truth at issue. The world often seems to be a mass of conflicting and contradictory opinions, none of which is worth much. Dialogue or debate, however, is not for its own sake. It ought not to be merely an exhibition of rhetorical facility or eloquence, though these have a place. It is for the sake of resolving an issue by having all sides consider what is at stake. It assumes that error has something to be said for it. The point of error can be stated clearly. It also grants that, sometimes, the best that we can do is to come to a reasonable opinion that can provide for us a basis of judgment and action.
Today, we are largely indifferent to truth claims. Religions and philosophies are chosen mostly for tradition, good feelings, sociability, and support, economic and spiritual. People from all varieties of nations, religions, and ways of life are thrown together in our cities and towns through immigration, media facilities, moral choices, and economic exchanges. They want to know whether we get along with everyone else, whether what anyone holds is true or not. It is best not to ask “truth” questions. Few will tolerate any judgment on “their” option. Much state law will enforce this “no-truth” assumption.
Truth, in fact, is considered to be a threat to the public order. In this context, if peace is desired, ideas should have no consequences. The older idea that we first knew whether something is true or not before we act on it is replaced by the view that “truth” has no relation to action. Freedom means that truth is irrelevant. The only thing that is necessary is whether we are allowed to “do” what we think, whatever it is. The state is designed to guarantee us this freedom as a “right.” Morals or virtues, as such, do not exist. They imply a restriction on avenues of living that we may choose to pursue. Thus, the truth will “not make us free.” Only freedom from the truth will make us free.
In this context, what is the place of Catholicism in the modern world? By its origins and traditions it stands on the side of veritas, truth. Truth is the mind confirming of what is that it is. In the Catholic understanding, revelation is a claim to truth. It is directed to reason. But if there is no “truth,” revelation and its content become just another dangerous view or sect. Evangelization, the making known of this truth, presupposes that what is made known to the nations is a “truth” that they do not and could not possess without it. But it is something designed for all nations. Men are not free not to know it. Its authority is not merely human. It is what God designed as everyone’s own good.
This truth is the "mission” the apostles were sent to complete, the one recent popes have forcefully reiterated. In recent decades, though John Paul II and Benedict XVI reversed some of this, the face of Catholicism has often been turned not so much to its own truth but to the truth it finds outside of itself. In this sense, the Church has become a center for and promoter of what is called “dialogue.” Before we can talk of what someone lacks, the theory goes, we must first understand what is there. Not everything is contained in revelation. Many things are left to men to figure out by themselves. Many good and true things are found in the polities and religions of the world. These truths can be identified and even defined or established. But this process assumes that a standard of truth, both in reason and revelation, does exist.
In his essay, “The Diabolist,” Chesterton wrote: “I am becoming orthodox because I have come, rightly or wrongly, after stretching my brain till it bursts, to the old belief that heresy is worse even than sin. An error is more menacing than a crime, for an error begets crimes...” Needless to say, not only has “heresy” fallen out of fashion, but with it orthodoxy and sin itself. The only “sins” that we find to chastise today are “ism” sins, those that are politically defined. They propose a “corporate” guilt. Their only “cure” is a reconstruction of society according to some ideological formula. They do not really deal with an individual person’s actual sins or with his belief or action. Culpability, if such still exists, is corporate in nature. It requires not change of heart and confession but change in system.
Vatican II was well known for not entering into any heresy issues. Its various documents strove to see what is positive in other religions or philosophies. It did not have much of bad to say about anybody. And while the world is considerably more prosperous than ever before, we would be hard pressed to maintain that it is “better,” certainly not that it is “sinless.”
Christian revelation is based in the notion that Christ, true God and true man, was sent by the Father into the world, at a definite time and place, with the purpose of redeeming our sins. If there were no sins among us, His coming was in vain. Thus at least part of his mission was to send the Spirit who would “convict the world of sin” (John 16: 8). In a sense, it was easier to understand what Christ was about in a Jewish, Greek, or Roman background of articulated virtue and vice that most people understood than in a relativist world for which sin is incomprehensible.
To talk of sin to those who deny that there is such a thing presents a rather different problem. Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, active gay living, and other such acts that were normally called “sins,” are now called “rights.” Since the modern meaning of “rights” is to be free to choose our own “values,” it becomes enormously difficult to call a “right” a “sin.” In one sense, no matter what we call something it remains what it is. Without being “consequentialists,” that is, without holding that a thing is good or bad depending on the consequences, we can certainly say that these “rights” have consequences.
Worldwide abortion “rights” have resulted in a huge population loss and the destruction of many more girl babies than male babies. We now even question the future existence of many nations with low birth rates, rates that are a direct result of contraception and abortion. When a people refuses to have its own children, even destroys them, its disorder of soul is very basic.
Plato had said that the worst thing that could happen to us was to have a “lie” in our souls about reality. He meant both a lie that we accepted as true from others and a lie that we put in our own souls in order to justify our actions. Plato’s words were precise. The “lie” in our soul is chosen to be there in order to allow us to do what we want. What is also implies is that the consequences of our “lie” will manifest themselves in the world whether we like it or not.
In this sense, we are in dire need of sorting things out. The worst thing we can do to a sinner is to tell him that his sin is no sin, but a “right” or a “liberty.” Once the sinner is told that what he does is all right, he has little possibility of rectifying himself. He no longer sees the Church as an abiding beacon of truth that stands firm even if he rejects it. If the Church is not clear about what is true, the sinner has scarce hope of finding his way out of whatever evil he has chosen.
The great service that Catholicism is designed to perform in the modern world is to recover its voice. Chesterton was right. Heresy and error are more dangerous than sin. We see this everyday but we are afraid to say so. The sacrament of penance was provided to deal with sin. But it was the magisterium that was established to deal with error, sin, and heresy. When this latter purpose is neglected, the former purpose in today’s world becomes practically unutilized. Few go to confession because of their sins. No one sins because no one knows the connection between ideas and acts. It is ideas that originate and justify acts. It is not enough to talk of love of neighbor as if that had no structure or content to it. In today’s world, to tell someone to “love” someone can mean almost anything. Many a sin has some skewered idea of love at its origin. It can include those acts that undermine any possibility of love in the Christian sense.
The Catholic Church is the last bastion of truth in the modern world in so far as it hands down what it was taught and upholds the reason that alone can receive it. It is often chastised for holding what have come to be unpopular truths. But this upholding is one of its primary purposes for existing. It is right to prefer discussion to turmoil and violence. But we also knows that many cannot hear it and many others will not listen to it.
We are often covert “progressives” who think that, in this world, the truth will win out. Scripture often seems to suggest the opposite. This means that the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world is there where truth is affirmed. It will often be hated for this service to the world. And it is hated. But it itself is to be judged, as it knows, by its persistence in keeping before us the truths that were revealed to it. We have even come to reject the light of reason to which this transcendent truth addressed itself and brought out in our own understanding of real things.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. is a teacher, writer, and philosopher. Most recently, he was Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, from which he retired in 2012.